John Boyle O’Reilly’s Manuscript Book of Poems

Tuesday 21 April 2020

This week Dr Kate discusses the manuscript book of poetry by John Boyle O’Reilly, famous Irish-American author and Fenian.

John Boyle O’Reilly was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians). He was one of many who enlisted in the British Army with the intent of spreading pro-Irish independence sentiment. In 1866, after an unsuccessful uprising attempt, he was arrested on the charge of withholding information about an intended mutiny and eventually sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude. Two years later he was transported to Western Australia aboard the convict ship, Hougoumont. With the assistance of Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe, and his contacts, John was able to escape imprisonment and make his way to America, aboard a whaling ship. His successful escape enabled him to contribute valuable insight into a future scheme – the Catalpa Escape – to liberate the last six Fenians imprisoned in WA. 

Caption: ACC 3708A: Poems, 1868. Dedication and letter from John Boyle O’Reilly to Father Patrick McCabe.

While in WA, John wrote a number of poems in a vellum bound journal, which he appeared to have given to Father Patrick McCabe as a thank you gift. The book is dedicated to Patrick and the donor believed her family was in some way associated with him. When the book was donated to the Library in 1989, its authenticity was questioned, and Library staff engaged in extensive research in attempts to verify it, including comparing handwriting samples from other O’Reilly manuscript documents and even asking the WA Police if they recognised the shorthand! It was not deemed authentic until Gillian O’Mara translated parts of the shorthand that covered vellum exterior of the volume, using some notes found in the John Flood papers. This revealed that it was by John Boyle O’Reilly. See Gillian O'Mara's transcript of John Boyle O'Reilly's shorthand.

The book has been digitised and is available online through the State Library catalogue. It can be viewed for free by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Discover other Library treasures Dr Kate has discussed on ABC Radio.

Last updated on: 11 May 2020